Drug War

Why President Trump Should Free Ross Ulbricht

The Silk Road’s creator has a lot to teach drug prohibitionists.

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Will Donald Trump give clemency to Ross Ulbricht, who is serving two life sentences plus 40 years without the possibility of parole for founding and operating the black market e-commerce platform called Silk Road? He's considering it, according to two anonymous sources who spoke with The Daily Beast.

The case for commuting Ulbricht's sentence is simple: He never directly harmed anyone, and his sentence was wildly disproportionate to the severity of the crimes for which he was convicted.

"A life sentence without parole is shockingly extreme," actor and director Alex Winter told Reason in an August 2015 interview about his documentary on the Ublricht case, Deep Web. "The bluntness by which the judge communicated why she was pronouncing this sentence took everyone by surprise."

At that fateful hearing in 2015, U.S. District Judge Katherine Forrest told the courtroom that she had decided to go well beyond the mandatory minimum of 10 years because Ulbricht had taken a philosophical stand against drug prohibition.   

The Silk Road's creator thought that he "was better than the laws of this country … This is deeply troubling, terribly misguided, and very dangerous," she said in her opinion. The Silk Road's "stated purpose," she said, "was to be beyond the law."

Judge Forrest was exactly right, which is why prohibitionists should have tried to learn something from Ulbricht's creation.

What's actually "troubling" and "terribly misguided" is the U.S. war on drugs, which has cost the public more than $1 trillion, fueled decades of crime and violence, and stolen life years away from millions of Americans.

Ulbricht set out to disrupt the drug war by moving sales to an online marketplace impervious to government interference, where consenting adults could buy and sell anything of their choosing.  

He aimed "to abolish the use of coercion and aggression amongst mankind," according to his LinkedIn profile, and create "an economic simulation to give people a first-hand experience of what it would be like to live in a world without the systemic use of force."

"[Ulbricht's] arguments are incredibly relatable," Vanity Fair's Nick Bilton told Reason in a 2017 interview about his book, American Kingpin: The Epic Hunt for the Criminal Mastermind Behind the Silk Road. "When it comes to [legalizing cannabis and mushrooms] I completely agree with Ross and his arguments … Where I started to have a really hard time is with the selling of things like heroin and fentanyl."

In a December column reacting to the news that Trump is considering clemency for Ulbricht, Bilton argued that the Silk Road "caused irreparable harm to others," citing the six people who allegedly "died from drugs they had purchased on the Silk Road, including a teenager in Australia, who had had an adverse reaction to a hallucinogen and had jumped out of a hotel window."

Those deaths were tragic and heartbreaking, and jurors were right to be moved—but the real culprit is the drug war itself, because that's what drove the narcotics trade underground in the first place. That's why there are no reputable brands, or quality control in heroin, LSD, or MDMA, so users have no choice but to take dealers at their word. The Silk Road was an attempt, albeit imperfect, to correct for the lack of information in drug markets, which is why on net it probably saved lives. 

A 2013 study in the International Journal of Drug Policy found that users flocked to the Silk Road out of concern "for street drug quality and personal safety" and that "vendor selection appeared to be based on trust, speed of transaction, stealth modes and quality of product."

Several users on the site's forums regularly answered questions about drug safety and what to do in the case of an overdose. 

The Silk Road made buying drugs "too easy," according to a mother whose son struggled with addiction before dying of an overdose. But shutting down Silk Road didn't make drugs less readily available—it only pushed sales onto less trustworthy online platforms or back onto the streets.

If the president does grant Ulbricht clemency, much of the credit belongs to his mother Lyn, who has spent the last 5 years tirelessly advocating on his behalf. 

"Please, Mr. President … give [my son] a second chance. He won't let you down," she said in an October video.

Ulbricht's critics often point to a series of contract killings that he allegedly ordered with the intention of stopping blackmailers who were threatening to bring him down. But those allegations remain unproven, the alleged murders were never carried out, and the government never charged him on those counts. 

"It's extremely irresponsible to fall on one side or the other [regarding] allegations of murder that have not been charged, much less proven," says Alex Winter.

And perhaps the Silk Road's most enduring legacy is bootstrapping bitcoin, as New York Times reporter Nathaniel Popper explained in 2015.

"Silk Road proved that bitcoin worked," Popper said at that year's Consensus conference. "It proved that you could actually send real value across the world."

Freeing Ross Ulbricht would be the appropriate way to cap off a year in which American voters made it loud and clear that they're ready to close the book on the drug war.

Bizarrely, Bilton claimed in his Vanity Fair column that libertarians are being inconsistent in pleading Ulbricht's case.

"If Ulbricht's supporters really cared about the war on drugs or libertarian ideals," Bilton wrote, "they'd be demanding that the nearly half a million people currently in U.S. jails for drug offenses should be pardoned too." Of course, that's exactly what libertarians have been saying going back to the 1970s

Prior to his sentencing, Ross Ulbricht wrote a letter to the judge pleading for mercy. 

"I've had my youth, and I know you must take away my middle years, but please leave me my old age … I certainly won't be the rebellious risk-taker I was when I created Silk Road. In fact, I'll be an old man." 

Ross Ulbricht turned 36 this year. Let's hope he's still a rebel and, soon enough, once again, a free man. 

UPDATE: Lyn Ulbricht reached out to Reason with concerns about the allegations against Ross discussed in the video. To learn more, please check out FreeRoss.org.

Produced by Zach Weissmueller. Graphics by Lex Villena.

Music: "Thoughts," by ANBR licensed by Artlist. 

Photos: ID 32821222© Iulius Costache| Dreamstime.com, ID 156631077©; Motortion| Dreamstime.com; Picture alliance / Tobias Hase/Newscom; Sthanlee Mirador/Sipa USA/Newscom.